Thoughts On SandDance And Power BI

After SandDance was announced at the Microsoft Data Insights Summit a few weeks ago I had a quick play with it, thought to myself that it looked like it it would provide a few more cool data visualisation options, and then almost forgot about it. More recently I spent some time looking at SandDance in more detail and it got me thinking some more about what its uses today are and what what its future might be. There has been a lot of hype surrounding SandDance but not a lot of clarity about where it is positioned in the Power BI story; to be honest I’m still not quite sure where it fits myself and I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft doesn’t know either, or at least is keeping its options open.

One thing that is worth pointing out is that it comes from Microsoft Research and is released through Microsoft Garage which is, and I quote, an “outlet for experimental projects”. This suggests that it isn’t a polished product but more of a work-in-progress or an experimental platform. This certainly matches my impressions of the tool and those of Ruth Pozuelo and Alon Brody, who have blogged about it already: in many respects it’s very sophisticated but in others it is quite limited. Will it ever become an ‘official’ product? Other tools have followed this path: you may remember Power Query was originally an experimental project called Data Explorer and released though a site called Azure Labs, a predecessor to the Microsoft Garage site, so it is possible.

Another aspect of the SandDance story that deserves discussion is whether it’s just another custom visualisation or something more. This post on the Power BI blog talks about is as though it’s the former and I guess you could see it just as a way of accessing a lot of new chart types (such as small multiples) for your reports. The charts its creates are certainly eye-catching, as are the animated transitions, and the importance of that  – especially for sales demos – should not be underestimated.

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However, it seems clear to me that SandDance is really an interactive visual data exploration tool, and indeed this is what the SandDance website suggests:
”SandDance is a web-based application that enables you to more easily explore, identify, and communicate insights about data.”
Microsoft doesn’t currently have any other products that compete in this sector: Power BI reports and dashboards are for publishing pre-defined, semi-static insights rather than true ad-hoc analysis, and while Excel PivotTables are great for starting with a blank sheet and exploring your data, they are certainly not visual; I don’t think Excel PivotCharts are a true visual exploration tool either, more of a visual representation of data in a PivotTable. Does Microsoft need a product in this area? I think it does if it wants to compete directly with Tableau, the gold standard in visual data exploration. Adding SandDance to Power BI makes Power BI a much more rounded product.

A third question is this: why is there a standalone version of SandDance and a Power BI custom visual? This blog post contains an interesting statement from Steven Drucker, principal researcher on the SandDance team:
“Using the Microsoft Garage as the release platform gives us the freedom to run experiments with the more accessible standalone version, and as we learn what you like and what works, we can add the right parts to the Power BI visual,”
This strongly suggests that the standalone version is really just a place for testing new functionality and that the Power BI custom visual is the main focus. Does this contradict the point I made above, and is it just the standalone version that is the ‘experimental’ tool? I’m not sure, because at the moment there don’t seem to be many differences in functionality between the two versions. We’ll have to see how things develop. This statement also suggests that if SandDance does grow up to be a real product, it will be as part of Power BI. This makes commercial sense – every new Microsoft BI product should be integrated with Power BI in my opinion. What’s more, many of SandDance’s current limitations (for example around loading and refreshing data) are solved by using the capabilities of the Power BI platform.

However I’m not sure integrating SandDance into Power BI as a custom visualisation, or rather only as a custom visualisation, is a good idea. At the moment the SandDance custom visualisation feels a bit awkward to use: it’s one tool embedded inside another with two inconsistent and often overlapping UIs. I would prefer to see it as a separate tool launched from the PowerBI.com portal, similar to how the original Power View is/was launched from SharePoint, a third way to interact with data stored in Power BI alongside regular Power BI reports and Excel reports. Users should be able to launch it in the same way as Analyze in Excel and use it to explore a data set directly without having to create a report first, and if they find something interesting they should be able to pin what they have created as a visual to a dashboard, or save it for use in a regular Power BI report. Doing this would require a lot more time and effort on the part of Microsoft than just building a custom visual, but at the moment there seems to be no shortage of resources available to the Power BI team. SandDance is undoubtedly a great first step but with some more investment from Microsoft it could be a much more important part of the Power BI story.